The survey show “Emily Jacir: Europa” piercingly penetrates visitors’ conscience by recounting histories of migration, resistance and exchange.
“Emily Jacir: Europa”, running at London’s Whitechapel Gallery until 3 January 2016, is the first comprehensive exhibition in the United Kingdom exploring the output of Palestinian artist Emily Jacir over the last two decades.
There are stories that have been deliberately left untold or marginally treated, which form the seeds of Emily Jacir’s research. Born in the region of Palestine and living around the Mediterranean after periods in New York, Ramallah and Linz, the artist is intimately acquainted with geopolitical issues of identity, integration and migration that, among other global problems, are tearing part of the Middle East apart.
Jacir’s approach opens up a dialogue between diverse cultures, questions borders and truths, through a diverse range of media including film, photography, public interventions, installation, performance and video.
The survey show “Emily Jacir: Europa” curated by British Egyptian curator, editor and writer Omar Kholeif at Whitechapel Gallery, and travelling to IMMA – Irish Museum of Modern Art in Dublin, revolves around the topic of journey and focuses on the artist’s relationship with Europe, where she has been living for several years. This theme is explored in relation to her ‘stateless’ home nation Palestine and her personal experience as a ‘foreign artist’ straddling East and West. Art Radar focuses on three of the works on view.
The ongoing project Material for a Film, started in 2004, is the pivotal work in the show. It’s a large-scale mixed-media installation delving into the life of the PLO (Palestine Liberation Organization) intellectual Wael Zuaiter, who was assassinated in Rome by Israeli Mossad (the Institute for Intelligence and Special Operations) in 1972, as he was strongly believed to play a prominent role in the Munich massacre by Palestinian terrorist organisation Black September.
The point of departure for this still-evolving research is the element of disappearance. For a Palestinian: A Memorial to Wael Zuaiter was a film, never realised and conceived by Sydney-based artist and Zuaiter’s companion Janet Venn-Brown. This ‘loss’ prompted Jacir to fill the gap and start working on the project by collecting archive documents and interviews; photographs of the exteriors of Zuaiter’s apartment in Rome, and of places where he used to meet friends, have a coffee, and walk; letters and book covers found in his house, recounting the cultural buzz at that particular time in the city.
Crucial to the installation is the book One Thousand and One Nights, which Zuaiter wished to translate from Arabic to Italian. Jacir presents copies of the book pierced by the bullet of a .22 caliber gun – the same that killed the Palestinian intellectual – alongside a thousand blank books the artist shot during her performance at the Biennale of Sydney at Palazzo delle Papesse in 2007.
Emily Jacir’s journey into Zuaiter’s life and her intervention into the story of this almost sacred figure have produced a highly evocative installation that reanimates the Palestinian intellectual. She describes her detailed, almost obsessive research, on the independent online platform The Electronic Intifada:
I visited his friends in Rome, Massa Carrara and elsewhere and I made several trips to Nablus to visit his sister Naila and see his family home where he grew up. I visited Venn-Brown in Rome regularly during these three years. We spent many weeks together, calling on Zuaiter’s old friends and going through her extensive archives. I found a letter Venn-Brown had written to filmmaker Costas Gavras asking him to consider making a film about Zuaiter because she believed that through his story, that of thousands of other Palestinians could be told.
The exhibition continues to explore the theme of journey with an eye to Jacir’s specific situation as an artist living and working outside the borders of her birthplace, experiencing cultural exchanges on a daily basis and not always fitting within the system. Among other works on view, the installation Embrace (2005) is a circular luggage carousel that turns, blankly and with no one around claiming their baggage. The conveyor belt represents the act of waiting, and also stands for the experiences of Palestinians, travellers and many artists living away from their homeland, encountering outdated regulations, long procedures and strict bureaucracy.
In the environmental installation ex-libris (2010-2012), the topic of journey becomes an opportunity for exchange and sharing. The work memorialises over 30,000 books, labelled as Abandoned Property (AP), formerly the possessions of Palestinian individuals, institutions and libraries but which were looted by the Israeli authorities in 1948. 6,000 of these books are now in the Jewish National and University Library of Jerusalem. As Jacir explains to historian, curator and critic Eva Scharrer in an interview published in Mousse Magazine,
What was interesting was the way my relationship to the books shifted during the process of working. During the very first visits I was focused on documenting inscriptions in the books, particularly the names of the owners. But slowly, as I worked over the course of many visits, I became more and more interested in the small traces left behind in the books… stains, scribbles, marginalia, scraps of paper. […] I think the AP books can only point to individual stories.
Jacir’s interest in silenced narratives, whether they are individual or collective is expressed through a sort of obsession with the lives of others. Having experienced the trauma of war and the everlasting conflict between Palestine and Israel, such interest in the reconstruction of narratives is crucial to her research. She acutely observes even the most minimal detail, act or change in the story. Her background as a filmmaker allows her to master the creation of new narratives appropriated from archives, news images or witness accounts. Her approach to art recalls that of an activist: when retelling the story she occupies and intervenes in the flow of history, taking a stand in both its interpretation and construction.
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